Design an Ideal Hummingbird Garden

Summer Jewel Red Salvia is a siren call to every hummingbird in the neighborhood. Grow the other colors in the Summer Jewel series too; the hummers will feast on all of them!

Summer Jewel Red Salvia is a siren call to every hummingbird in the neighborhood. Grow the other colors in the Summer Jewel series too; the hummers will feast on all of them!

If you’re ready to attract these little darting jewels into your garden, chances are they are ready to come! You only need a few elements, but they are important:

  • An open, sunny area of garden
  • Nectar-bearing plants (more about this below)
  • A source of water
  • Nearby shelter in shrubs and trees

Notice that this list does not include a hummingbird feeder. You will undoubtedly want to set one up — in fact, a good practice is to set several smaller feeders in different areas of the garden, to see which sites the birds prefer and to prevent fights over territory among the birds. But feeders are only a supplement to the natural nectar hummingbirds get from plants. A feeder may bring in the birds sooner, but it is your garden itself that will keep them coming back. (See the last section of this article for more hummingbird feeder information.)

A low-hanging horizontal branch like this is a good choice for a feeder. The hummers have shelter close by, yet are in an open area (and with any luck, have nectar-bearing plants below and around the feeder).

A low-hanging horizontal branch like this is a good choice for a feeder. The hummers have shelter close by, yet are in an open area (and with any luck, have nectar-bearing plants below and around the feeder).

Open, Sunny Garden Area

Hummingbirds love sunshine, as do the plants they feed on. Choose a spot away from the driveway and patio, but with good visibility.

Nectar-bearing Plants

The plants you select to grow in your hummingbird garden are probably the single most important factor in attracting and retaining the birds year after year. Native plants are ideal, and 10 different varieties are better than one, even in small spaces. Various bloomtimes are even better.

Lobelia is one of the hummers' favorite nectar sources, and it often blooms well into fall. Try the trailing types in pots and baskets, too!

Lobelia is one of the hummers’ favorite nectar sources, and it often blooms well into fall. Try the trailing types in pots and baskets, too!

Consult your local Audubon Society or Master Gardeners’ group for specific plants that work well in your area, and use this list as a starting point:

  • Lobelia
  • Salvia (especially S. coccinea)
  • Monarda (Bee Balm)
  • Eupatorium (Joe-Pye Weed)
  • Asclepias (Milkweed and Butterfly Weed)
  • Aster
  • Echinacea
  • Zinnia
  • Sedum
  • Cosmos
    Butterfly Weed (Asclepias) is a friend to hummers as well as butterflies. Easy as pie to grow!

    Butterfly Weed (Asclepias) is a friend to hummers as well as butterflies. Easy as pie to grow!

Hummingbirds are attracted to red, tubular shaped flowers, but also to other colors and shapes. It’s much better to have a mix of flower types, with something always blooming from spring through fall, than to have a large bed of just one or two kinds of summer bloomers.

Water

If you don’t have a natural water source, a simple birdbath works well. Be sure it has very shallow spots — if the water is more than an inch deep, toss in a few pretty stones to serve as perches. Keep it refilled.

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium) is a native perennial that can reach 7 feet high. Hummers love its nectar and appreciate its shelter.

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium) is a native perennial that can reach 7 feet high. Hummers love its nectar and appreciate its shelter.

Nearby Shelter

This may seem to contradict that “open garden area” mentioned above, but all it means is that hummingbirds need a place they can rest or even flee while in the garden. No matter how beautiful your plants and birdbath are, they won’t become a hummingbird haven if they are located in the middle of an open field or vast lawn. Hummers instinctively want to know that shelter is seconds away if needed.

You don’t need to overdo the trees and shrubs. Many flowering shrubs also bear nectar that hummingbirds love, so combine food with shelter by planting Azalea, Hibiscus, Weigela, and Lantana around your flowering annuals and perennials. Flowering vines are also nectar sources: if you have a wall or fence nearby, blanket it in Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens is the one hummingbirds love!), scarlet runner bean, Morning Glory, and Trumpet Vine. The bigger and shaggier the better; the hummers will view it as a great hiding place!

Imagine looking out your window at this honeysuckle and seeing hummers sipping at the blooms!

Imagine looking out your window at this honeysuckle and seeing hummers sipping at the blooms!

In keeping with this idea, a nice brushy area near the hummingbird garden is much appreciated. When you attract hummers, you also attract butterflies, moths, bees, and flying insects. This is a good thing! A pile of brush or a generally untidy area is much more diverse and appealing to wildlife than a sculpted border and spotless bed.

One More Word about Feeders

Hummingbird feeders are almost as irresistible to humans as they are to birds, so bear these tips in mind as you set up and maintain them:

  • Several small feeders in different areas are better than one large one. Many hummingbird species are territorial, so you may only get one hummingbird at a time at any single feeder, no matter how many ports it has!
  • Put your feeder out much earlier than you think you should, and keep it out until hard frost. Hummingbirds migrate at different times, and the beginning and end of their season, when nectar plants may be scarce, are the most important times to offer them sugar water.
  • If only all hummingbirds were as cooperative as this group! Don't worry if your feeder has only one bird visiting it. Just place other small feeders around to conquer territorial issues.

    If only all hummingbirds were as cooperative as this group! Don’t worry if your feeder has only one bird visiting it. Just place other small feeders around to conquer territorial issues.

    Empty and clean the feeder every two or three days in cool weather, every single day in the summer. The sugar water goes bad quickly, and the sipping points can become clogged.

  • Don’t place the feeders lower than eye level. Hummingbirds are at risk from pets and other ground animals when they fly low.
  • Make your own hummingbird nectar in big batches every week and keep it in the fridge until ready to use. Here’s a recipe:

Hummingbird Nectar

4 parts tap or well water (not distilled or purified)

1 part granulated white sugar

Boil in a big pot on the stove until the sugar dissolves. Let it cool before filling feeders. Pour any excess into empty water bottles and store in the fridge.

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